Fineman: Politics and the Minnesota State Fair

Here, in the eye of the non-storm, on the opposite end of the Mississippi from the tumult in the Gulf, an eerie peace has descended on the frantic world of politics that I inhabit. The Republicans have all but suspended their convention; the media beast, with its cable tentacles and babbling bloviators, is for the moment anesthetized by lack of news here.

It seemed a good time to go to the Minnesota State Fair.

My Minnesota friends extol its amazing variety of food. Plus, I figured, what better place to get a sense of a swing state in the middle of the country as summer turns to fall and the real campaign begins.

My state fair conclusion: I know that the polls say that four out of five Americans think that the country is headed in the wrong direction. They are worried about where the money is going to come from for their children's education, for their own health care, for the investments in the future we need to make as a society.

But if we are on the road to oblivion—if the American Century is over—well, we are surely the happiest, best-fed folks ever to populate a failing empire. Also, the people I met were optimistic, and held a view of politics far less caffeinated and apocalyptic, and thus far more mature, than what you hear on TV and on the trail.

Perhaps I need to correct for Minnesota, with its sky-high educational standards and industrious people and generally prosperous economy.

But it's more than that; it's the Midwest. News and trends bubble up on the coasts of our continent. Luckily, the Midwest keeps us sane.

And fed. In the old days, the purpose of a state fair was to show off the agricultural accomplishments of local farmers. These days most fairgoers care only about inhaling the end product.

We Americans still lead the world in many fields: automotive cup-holder technology, for example. We also excel at the art of putting food on a stick encased in a rigid jacket of deep fried batter—the better to stroll along with while you look for other food on a stick. (The fair is famous not only for its size—it's second only to Texas—but for its political history. It was there, in 1901, that Teddy Roosevelt gave his famous "walk softly and carry a big stick" foreign-policy speech, and accidentally foreshadowed the fair's on-a-stick cuisine.)

Here in St. Paul, strollable items included: an entire spaghetti and meatball dinner; huge hunks of cured chocolate-covered bacon; walleye fish strips; falafel; sausages and hotdogs; assorted candy bars and snack-food cookies and cakes; and a "hot dish on a stick," consisting of an alternating series of Swedish meatballs and Tater Tots.

I saw one—and only one—fresh fruit stand. I had no interest in it.

Maybe this is the kind of menu that led to the fall of the Roman Empire, but I refuse to think so. I prefer to think of it as the way Minnesotans bulk up, like hibernating bears, for the winter.

There was some evidence of some politics at the fair—but not so much. Al Franken, the comedian-turned-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, had a prominent booth at one of the entrances. The fair administrators had banned bumper-sticker giveaways; Franken's volunteers were giving away baseball cards with pictures of the candidate and his stands on the issues.

Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman had a smaller booth, but with an up-to-the-minute message copied from the national GOP: let's stop all this politics and focus on aiding the Gulf. (Cynics, and Democrats, might suggest that the GOP would rather not have to talk too much about their own party brand right now.)

There were presidential booths, too. Sen. John McCain's had a steady trickle of visitors. Obama's, it seemed, was busier. By nightfall his volunteers were claiming that that they had sold or given away literally thousand of buttons, t-shirts and issue brochures. They even had a cardboard hand fan with the slogan "CHANGE ON A STICK."

As I stood in various food lines, I heard plenty of approving comments about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Indeed, she seems like the kind of gal who would feel 100 percent at home at the fair. One enthusiastic supporter of the new GOP ticket said that she had brought energy—and youthful enthusiasm—to a boring campaign.

I met the prototypical Obama guy at the Norwegian cheese curds stand. As I was getting my order, he was getting his: a colossal tube of deep-friend something on a stick. He glanced me with a pitying look. I had failed to order the best item on the menu, he said, his hot meal on a stick. "The ultimate Minnesota food," he declared.

I should have expected the lecture for, after all, my 23-year-old gastronomical guide was as Minnesotan as you can get. His pedigree was impeccable. His name was Aaron Ackerman. He was born in South Korea, adopted as an infant by Jewish parents. He grew up in the solid suburb of Minnetonka. He was educated in excellent public schools there and at Middlebury College. He has his eye on a career in international development.

Who would know better what to order at a Norwegian food stall?

I asked him if he thought our best days were behind us as a country. Yes, he said we have serious problems, and Obama had "overpromised" in his Denver speech.

Yet Ackerman saw in Obama someone who has "energy and leadership ability. He is a solid guy who can get things done." Ackerman described himself as an "American Exceptionalist"— someone who believed in the unique qualities and destiny of our country.

That was one reason, he said, why he had volunteered to help lead a Minneapolis-based movement to ban the use of torture by the American government under any and all circumstances. The practice violated what made us special as a nation, he said.

Then we went out separate ways—in search of more Minnesota food.